It is time for us to do better
It is strange, the simplest questions are so often the hardest to answer. I was asked by Hi Vis Press to write about Sapeur – the small book publishing company I set up with a friend almost two years ago, and that I am now the editor of. Why do we do what we do? It is a valid question, and I see why I am the most qualified person to provide an answer. But still, the best answer I can give, is simply that most of the time I just don’t know.
I still remember my co-worker’s question: “Are you going to write the story about us?” The immense weight of it all. Sometimes the world seems to focus, become sharper, this was one of those moments. I shrugged my shoulders: “Maybe, but the truth is that no one will care.” He looked at me, not in anger or sadness, just with placid weariness, and said: “Yeah, no one cares.” It was four in the morning and we still had three and a half hours left of our 12-hour night shift.
I had just told him about the book I was trying to complete. My attempt to write something about class and labour. An attempt to make some sense of it all, of our lives. We both knew what such a book would look like, but also the silence it would meet. Sweden lives in the shadow of a social democracy which is long gone. To be confined within a working class existence is a strange experience. On one hand you exist to shield your betters from the work they would not endure, on the other hand it is seldomly admitted that you exist.
Sometimes it is impossible to separate sober realism from self-defeating pessimism. If you have been beaten so many times, it is delusional to not anticipate another beating, but if you do you will cloak yourself in crippling fear. Somehow you just must go on, against better knowledge. That is probably the only worthwhile lesson I have learnt from the last decade of working class jobs and literary writing. Sapeur is in a lot of senses born out of this.
Some years ago, Hazard & Palm, a small Swedish independent publisher, accepted what was to be my third book. But like many small publishers the weight of their lives crushed the project before it was completed. It was almost a repetition of what had happened when they published my first book. One of the editors approached me afterwards and said that he wanted to start a new publishing project with me. I was hesitant, I did not want to blur the line between writing and publishing. I did not trust myself enough. But I also realised that I had little choice. My disillusion with the established publishers was already pushing me to the point where I considered stopping writing. At least stop trying to get published.
Sapeur was a way forward. Our first book was the orphan of Hazard & Palm. We operate on a barely existing budget. In order to focus on autonomy and to be able to prioritise art over economic necessity we rely on print-on-demand. No one gets paid. We barely sell any books. We never really expected to do that. We know that we will not succeed, the conditions for small publishers are impossible, our goal is just to postpone our demise as long as we can. The name was my idea. I liked the phonetic sound of it and the dual meaning it contains. A meaning that stretches from the French Foreign Legion to the Congolese dandies. Two worlds very different from our own.
I could write about how the Swedish literary scene is almost uniformly middle class. About how conformity is the only ticket to acceptance. About how literature has been reduced to entertainment or a way to make a hollow career within the established cultural institutions. Class corruption trying to pose as art. All of that is true. But that landscape is not ours. We do not want to change it. We just try to get on with our lives. They have to take responsibility for what they do. In a very anxious environment, this is a self-defeating approach. You never survive on your own. But still, that is the choice we have made.
Sapeur will most probably not exist in a few years’ time. That is ok. Our only wish is to leave a handful of worthwhile titles behind us. We just want to publish as good books as we can. Recognition is beside the point. It does not matter. We are not a book publisher specialising in political or working class writing. But all of our books published so far reside within those two realms. It is not as much a contradiction is it is a matter of fact. I wish that I could try to explain Sapeur in the terms of working in Gramsci’s shadow, that we do organic intellectual work. But that would be to flatter ourselves. All I can say that I’m an old dysfunctional punk. It’s no more glamorous than that.
One of the Swedish poets that I hold in high regard is Bengt Hansson. Not so much for his poetry, but more for the life that he had. He wrote traditional nature poetry in order to survive a dreary factory job in rural Sweden during the 1960’s and 1970’s. In one sense his poetry was more political than the agitprop literature that we now remember. He barely published anything during his productive years. The magnificent collection of poems that we now have was posthumously published in the periphery.
It would be wrong to say that he gained recognition after his death. Bengt Hansson is still unknown and he will continue to be. I just happened to stumble upon the book in the public library. But still, his work serves as a reminder of what we can and should do with our lives. Sapeur is a futile effort to try to create something with our lives. Writing in itself is not enough. By relying on the traditional publishers we would restrict our lives. It is time for us to do better.
Last week we published Sapeur’s fifth title.
Sapeur förlag is a small independent publisher based in the south of Sweden. They have published one article collection and one novel by Mattias Jeschko-Edberg, in addition they have also published one poetry collection and one essay on poetry, both in danish, by Christian Stokbro Karlsen. All books have received generous criticism. Sapeur has totally sold around 50 copies. A fifth book was released last week.